Wednesday, April 20

Profile of Henry William 'Harry' Vardon

Part one of two on golf legend Harry Vardon (1870-1937).

By John Coyne

Copyright © John Coyne. Used with permission.

HENRY WILLIAM "HARRY" VARDON, who is credited with giving golf the modern swing and the Vardon grip, published a book in 1922 entitled The Gist of Golf. I came across a reissue recently, published in 1999 by the Rutledge Hill Press of Nashville, Tennessee. For this printing, Rutledge added a useful Glossary to explain such names as "baffy," as well as "howk" and "foozling." Now, we all know golf is a difficult game, but so can be golf terminology.

"I'm the best and I'll thank you to remember that,"
Harry Vardon once said.
The book is a delightful collection of reminiscences as well as instructions on how to play the game with hickory clubs.

Vardon first tells how he got into the game as a young boy. He played then with homemade blackthorn sticks were the shafts and a piece of oak as the head. The two were fastened together by boring a hole in the head with a red-hot poker, inserting the blackthorn stick and tightening the joint with the aid of wedges. There were no iron clubs.

"Truth to tell," he writes, "I was not particularly keen on the game, and played very seldom."

He was much keener on going to the beach to collect seaweed which sold for a few pounds that he gave to his parents. He needed to earn money for his family of five brothers and two sisters. At the age of thirteen, he quit school and went to work for a doctor's service as a page-boy to help his family. 

For the next four years he didn't play any golf. Then at seventeen he went to work as a gardener for a man who did play and who gave Vardon a few of his old clubs which Vardon recalled were "very wonderful after the clumsy, homemade things that I had been using."

Vardon actually preferred other sports. He played cricket and football, and also ran. He won 10 prizes as a sprinter.

'Enormous Amount'

All of this changed when he heard his younger brother Tom, who had gone to England to become a professional golfer, had won second prize in a tournament at Musselburgh. The prize was worth 20 pounds. 

"It seemed an enormous amount to me," Vardon said, hearing the news. "I pondered long and intently over it. I knew that, little as I had played, I was as good as Tom. If he could win that vast fortune, why shouldn’t I?"

Vardon was twenty before he took up the game seriously and he would go onto become one of the "Great Triumvirate" with James Braid and John H. Taylor of Great Britain. They ruled the British Open in the early 20th century, winning 16 Opens among them. Vardon alone won six Opens between 1896 and 1914, a record that still stands.

Vardon came to the United States in 1900 for exhibitions sponsored by A.G. Spalding, a manufacturer of sporting goods. He was to play with Spalding's new guttie golf ball, the Vardon Flyer. Spalding offered Vardon a percentage of sales but Vardon accepted a flat fee of $10,000 for 10 months of work, with the chance to augment his income through side purses in matches and fees from $200 to $250 for each personal appearance. It was a wise decision. This was just about the time that the rubber ball was introduced and the gutta-percha period of golf came to an end.

Vardon's tour, however, was no failure. He won the U.S. Open while in America that year.


John Coyne is a bestselling author of three golf novels and more than 20 other books. Pay him a visit at John Coyne Books.

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